Regurgitator have never struck anyone as a particularly sentimental or nostalgic band. So how did these iconoclasts end up on a national 'RetroTech' tour, playing their first two albums – the classic 'Tu Plang' and 'Unit' – in full?
“It's quite weird, actually,” laughs bassist, vocalist and renaissance man Ben Ely. “Last year the Falls [Festival] people asked us to play the 'Unit' album from start to finish. They asked us, and then a month later that album got voted in the top 10 of Triple J's [Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time]. There were a lot of people interviewing us about that record after that. Then we did the show on New Year's Eve, and a lot of our fans and friends were like, 'oh, I really want to get to the show but I can't; can you come do the show in our town?'
“So that's how it started, but... it is a little bit funny. I feel like it's funny because our new album ['SuperHappyFunTimesFriends'] was better than those two records, but people are nostalgic. I can only speak for myself, but when I listen to those records, it does transport me back in time to where I was when we made that record, and also to how I felt as a younger man... it's a bittersweet thing, I guess.”
Nostalgia is often bittersweet, of course. It was once considered a medical condition – a type of depression – and the word is literally derived from Greek terms for homecoming and pain. In this case, there's a certain irony in the band's temporary reincarnation as a '90s revival act - “humans are very nostalgic,” Ely laughs, “and they do like high school reunions” – barely 12 months on from the release of their most vital record in over a decade.
“I'm really proud of it,” Ely says of ‘SuperHappyFunTimesFriends’, “and it was a really fun album to take on tour, but obviously it would have been better to get a little bit more publicity for it. It's hard when you're an older band like us, I guess, with the way music is geared these days. It's a lot tougher for bands to get out there and get noticed when there are so many musicians out there, and there are a lot of distractions.
“When we did 'Tu Plang' and 'Unit', we were on a major record label, and at the time, there were only really cassette tapes and CDs. When we started, there weren't even computers, there were just black screens with green writing! There was no mobile phone technology. It was a very different world back then, when you remember it. It's a strange thing.”
It's probably not a coincidence that these two iconic records, 'Tu Plang' (1996) and 'Unit' (1997), were released on a major label [Warner Music]. Since then, they've sacrificed some of their potential for mainstream success by severing ties with Warner, but Ely doesn't exactly regret the decision.
“I think it's better (now) because we have complete freedom and we own our music,” he says. “When we were on a major, they owned us. We've got complete control now. We probably don't sell as many records, but we probably make about the same amount of money, because the record company were such pirates. They took such a large percentage of the money we made. I think our band has always flourished in smaller clusters, with smaller crowds. I don't think we're really a big stadium band or a big festival circuit band. I think our music transposes better to smaller numbers anyway.
“I think that was a good trajectory, being on a major label at the start and going through that whole process and using their publicity machine. They helped us get established, and now we can use that momentum to keep going on as we are, even if it is on a smaller level. I guess when it comes to things like more people being able to hear 'SuperHappyFunTimesFriends', I sometimes think it'd be good to be on a major, but most of the time it's better being independent and having that freedom.”
A big part of the success of those early records – apart from the fact that they're, you know, excellent records – was the notoriety the band generated with tracks like 'I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am'. Certain Christian groups were outraged, which ultimately won the group more fans (it turns out a lot of Triple J listeners in the early '90s were not members of the Christian right). But when Ely looks around the cultural landscape in 2012, he doesn't see anyone pushing the boundaries.
“I think that society in general has become a lot more conservative,” he says. “Especially musicians and artists. They don't seem to speak out and be as political and offensive, they don't seem to go out of their way to poke fun at our leaders or at our government. I sound like an old man, but in the '80s and '90s, people were a lot more aggressively anarchistic than they are now. There's a lot of complacency within musicians; you don't see many people that are overtly offensive or politically aggressive. I don't know... there probably isn't as much point in going for shock value now.
“I can't really speak for anyone else but myself; I can't really predict what anyone else is going to think or feel. All I can say is how it is for me and how I feel about it, and I guess we still get off on being juveniles and swearing and writing shock pop or whatever. We still like that kind of thing, because it's a playful way of expressing ourselves. Everyone's different, you know?”
So here we are, almost 20 years into the life of Regurgitator. How much longer can Ben, Quan and drummer Peter Kostic keep doing this?
“Look, we talk about it sometimes,” Ely admits. “The other day, Quan said, 'do you think we should be doing this when we're 50?' I don't know. It's up to how we feel at the time... we'll see what happens. If we're not committed, and we're not genuine, I think we should stop.”Regurgitator play great northern, byron BAY, september 26 and The Hi-Fi September 27-28.Click to view Regurgitator's clip 'Kong Foo Sing'